Are your skills, knowledge and experience more valuable today that they were 12 months ago?
We can all become obsolete. In itself this is nothing new but the fast pace of recent changes means we can now become obsolete faster than ever before. This is a risk not only for us personally but it is also a risk for organisations, if the skills and knowledge of their workforce becomes obsolete. The key to staying relevant and valuable is continuous or lifelong learning. However, what does this mean in reality?
To practice what we preach, we reviewed the top 1,000 most shared articles on continuous learning to see what we could learn. The articles ranged from high level research reports by leading consultancies through to advice for specific professionals from College Principals to Musicians to Developers. Here are our top 20 takeaways from the research.
1. There is a growing interest in continuous and lifelong learning
There has been a steady increase in articles about continuous learning and lifelong learning published over the last five years. Data from BuzzSumo indicates there are now over 300 articles a month published about the topic. The number of articles published each month are shown below.
Learning Professionals are adopting this language too, we increasingly see Learning Platforms move away from calling themselves Learning Management Systems to referring to continuous or workplace learning platforms. More on that later.
2. People are naturally curious and lifelong learners
A Pew Research survey in 2015 found that:
- 73% of adults consider themselves lifelong learners
- 74% of adults participate in activities to advance their knowledge about something that personally interests them
(yes, we don’t quite know what happened to the 1% there either. Maybe they were too busy learning to answer the 2nd question).
As this data shows, formal / online courses are overshadowed by more informal and social methods of learning. We’re all consuming content from multiple sources all the time.
3. Younger people have a particularly strong focus on lifelong learning
The Pew Research study found that 81% of 18-29 year olds in the United States identified themselves as lifelong learners.
It has been argued, for example in this Forbes article, that millennials are prioritizing happiness and learning because they understand the link between the two.
As this younger cohort moves through the workforce we might expect greater demands for continuous learning opportunities. This is heartening to see, but also presents a challenge to organisations who don’t promote a culture of continuous learning or are limited to fixed courses or resources. Millennials will expect a more fluid approach. These are the people who ask YouTube how to do something rather than go through 30 minutes of elearning.
4. The knowledge economy drives continuous learning
John Horrigan in this Pew Research article argues one of the key drivers behind learning is “the steady advancement of the ‘knowledge economy,’ in which economic value is increasingly derived from working with sources of knowledge and in which more and more jobs are built around knowledge workers who use information to ‘create original knowledge products.’”
You can trace this thinking back to Peter Drucker, who coined the term knowledge worker and may well be the person who first mentioned continuous learning in this context:
“The great majority of the new jobs require qualifications the industrial worker does not possess and is poorly equipped to acquire….they require a different approach to work and a different mind-set. Above all, they require a habit of continuous learning.”
5. Change means continuous learning
“To keep up with the speed of business and innovation, today’s workforce environment demands a culture of “continuous learning,” a fundamental understanding of creative and innovative ways of thinking, combined with the desire to learn new skills.” Ryan D. Burgess, director of Ohio’s Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation.
Thomas L. Friedman in New York Times argues “the accelerations set loose by Silicon Valley in technology and digital globalization have created a world where every decent job demands more skill and, now, lifelong learning.”
Tom Hood expressed a neat equation for dealing with change: L>C:
“In a world of rapid change and increasing complexity, the winners will be those who can keep their L>C. That is their rate of learning must be greater than the rate of change and greater than the rate of their competition.”
6. Change also means unlearning
We have to both learn and unlearn. Some skills will become obsolete. This may be some years away but Brian Krzanich, the C.E.O. of Intel, recently questioned the need to learn to drive when he said “I believe my grandchildren will not drive.” Which will give them a lot of time to learn something else…
7. Organisations aim to recruit lifelong learners
Companies increasingly recognise the need to recruit lifelong learners. Eric Schmidt, now executive chairman of Alphabet, a tech holding company which includes Google, has talked of Google’s recruitment focus on ‘learning animals.’ Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft says he wants to hire “learn-it-alls, not know-it-alls”.
The Canadian army operates in a fast changing technical landscape and they also specifically look for lifelong learners. In their recruitment they look for people who have “an interest in continuous learning and the ability to problem-solve.”
8. Organisations need to support the continuous learners they recruit
Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report emphasised the importance of developing learning approaches that “enable people to develop themselves every day”. The aim is to embed learning as a day to day part of the job not as something separate.
Thus it is not enough to recruit lifelong learners, organisations also have to support continuous learning. This may mean a radical redesign of corporate learning to embed ongoing learning in the workplace. The default model for corporate learning has been to emulate school and university and provide fixed courses on familiar topics. But we don’t know what we will need to know tomorrow. We need to look outside the course catalogue to discover that.
9. CEOs must address lifelong learning
This McKinsey article highlights an open letter from a Harvard Professor and an engineer to CEOs. They argue that lifelong learning is key to maximizing the value and impact of an organization. The authors point out that “the future of learning is not in the classroom. It’s in the field—finding ways to do better while doing the work.”
The authors stress how it important it is for CEOs to “rethink how to continuously improve the skills of employees beyond conventional training and education… insist on experimenting with new learning methods and look for approaches that are based on good evidence.”
Finally the article argues that CEOs “need to model learning behaviors” as well as investing in the development of learning processes and tools.
10. Continuous learning platforms are the future
This article argues that “Continuous Learning Platforms are the Future of Professional Development”. Whether traditional learning platforms can adapt to support continuous learning or become just compliance centers is open to question. What is clear is that continuous learning involves more than content.
The author argues that continuous learning is also driven by connections that exist in professional learning communities. He argues “Educators who self-organize on Twitter and other social networks to share knowledge, resources and best practices with peers around the world are pioneers in the continuous learning movement. Continuous learning platforms are now emerging that incorporate these always-on, community-based learning opportunities into more formal professional development programs.”
Craig Weiss echoes this when he refers to the new breed of Learning Engagement Platforms. These can live alongside or on top of a traditional LMS, with an extra layer of UX, and curated content from multiple sources. They are better equipped to support continuous learning.
11. Continuous learning will disrupt current learning approaches
Enabling seamless lifelong learning journeys will change the nature of current learning approaches. This McKinsey article examines how corporate learning may change support continuous and lifelong learning.
There are many aspects but they include opening up the supply of learning to include different content formats, open resources, crowdsourced content and more virtual teaching and tutoring.
12. The future is open, continuous and embedded
According to Josh Bersin the future of learning is being shaped by digital developments. He argues we are at the intersection between continuous learning and digital learning, see his chart below.
For Bersin, digital learning is really a new way of learning. In his model the LMS becomes invisible and learning takes place all the time and everywhere. A lot of this learning takes the form of micro-learning. In essence very short pieces of learning to help users complete a task immediately in the workplace.
13. Shifting responsibilities for learning
Jeremy Auger points out how responsibility for learning is shifting. “When we are very young, our parents are responsible for our education; later that responsibility shifts to our teachers.” “We need a model where individuals are supported in taking responsibility for their own lifelong education, even after graduation. And companies need to take responsibility for continually providing opportunities for their employees to develop.”
14. Learners have the key responsibility
Your employer has a responsibility to create a culture for continuous learning. But it’s really down to you: If you want to be a lifelong employee you have to be a lifelong learner. You are responsible for your own development and self-motivation to learn and keep learning becomes one of the most important life skills.
For example, the US College Board has reshaped the PSAT and SAT exams to encourage lifelong learning. President David Coleman says “We analyzed 250,000 students from the high school graduating class of 2017 who took the new PSAT and then the new SAT. Students who took advantage of their PSAT results to launch their own free personalized improvement practice through Khan Academy advanced dramatically: 20 hours of practice was associated with an average 115-point increase from the PSAT to the SAT — double the average gain among students who did not.”
The bad news for individuals is they have to take responsibility, the good news is that there are more and more opportunities to continue learning.
Michael Simmons has argued If you’re not spending 5 hours per week learning, you’re being irresponsible.
Not sure where to start? This Harvard Business Review article identifies many ways in which we can all make learning a lifelong habit from podcasts to reading groups. Time is short but there are many ways technology can supplement and support learning from videos, to ebooks to automated alerts and filters.
15. Continuous learning means doing not just reading or studying
Andrew Templeton, Director of Engineering, Tuple Labs talked about his personal approach to continuous learning. To stay updated he says:
- in order to keep current with the rapid pace of AWS releases, I study every post to the AWS What’s New Blog and make sure I understand how these changes will affect my work.
- to keep my practical implementation skills strong beyond natural challenges arising from Tuple’s client work, I write AWS-focused open source software tools to solve common problems I have.
This focus on embedded learning in the workplace and learning on the job was echoed by many of the articles we read.
16. Continuous learning is essential for career success
We read many articles about the importance of continuous learning to career success. For example, this article in Edweek back in 2015 argues that continuous learning is critical to the career success of college Principals. The author also argues that learning should not be seen as a one off experience and reinforces the importance of embedded learning on the job.
17. Job security is being employable
There was a time when job security came from being employed, now it comes from being employable. Those that succeed in future will be the continuous learners. People who are:
- always learning something new and seeking out knowledge
- learning a wide variety of things, not only those related to their current role
- seeking new ways of doing things and new experiences
- always up to date on current and future trends and technologies
- agile, things change, stuff happens, be flexible
As Michael Falcon put it:
“I will never stop learning because I’m scared I will become obsolete or irrelevant.”
18. Lifelong learning is about more than career success
Alan Tuckett writing on the World Economic Forum site makes the point that “learning throughout life makes sense. Research shows it is good for your health, your wealth, your civic engagement and your family’s future prospects. It prolongs your independent life and enriches your quality of life.”
19. Continuous learning needs to be a habit
John Coleman argues we all need to Make Learning a Lifelong Habit. This is not as easy as it sounds. Coleman argues “continuous and persistent learning isn’t merely a decision. It must become a habit.” In order to be successful he suggests:
- Setting realistic goals
- Develop and be part of a learning community
- Avoid distractions that detract from deep learning
- Use technology to supplement learning from podcasts to online courses
Jane Hart makes the point that building habits, not building courses is how to instil a continuous learning culture: “Continuous learning in the workplace doesn’t mean providing continuous training or producing more and more stuff for workers, but helping them become independent modern lifelong learners”.
20. Algorithms are also continuous learners
Given the recent focus on artificial intelligence it is interesting to note that continuous learning is also key to artificial intelligence. Algorithms get smarter over time by learning from experience and from new data. Increasingly AI systems are being designed to benefit from constant feedback because “continuous improvement is tied to continuous learning.”
Lifelong learning may not keep us ahead of the robots but there is plenty of evidence that it will keep us employed, healthy, independent and a valuable member of our community. Also as John Coleman points out in addition to its utility, learning is fun.
“It’s a joy to engage a new topic. Having an array of interesting topics at your disposal when speaking to colleagues or friends can boost your confidence. And it’s fulfilling.”
Taking our own continuous learning medicine…
There will be many more articles published on continuous and lifelong learning. But it’s tough to make the time to search for them all and find the best ones. So we’ve trained our algorithm to find the best ones for us every day. Because we’d rather spend time learning than searching…
Here’s our constantly updating feed of articles on Continuous Lifelong learning.